From helping your growing sprout master her fine motor skills to facilitating her mental development, playtime is more than just fun and games. In fact, according to Stuart Brown, PhD, a pioneer in play research, it can improve mood and even make us smarter—regardless of age. But you don’t have to turn your house into a toy store to ensure your tot stays happy and meets her monthly milestones. Employ these smart tips and tricks to keep your wee one stimulated.
Keep it simple
Whether it’s a rousing round of peekaboo or a sensory sandbox excursion, playtime can occur with nary a toy in sight. The earliest scenes of play can be spotted in infancy when a mother and her babe lock eyes, smile and coo or babble back and forth, says Brown. No bells and whistles required—just a mom and her mini having a ball.
Infants may be limited in what activities they can join in on—and their eat-sleep- poop schedule may seem monotonous—but everything is new and fascinating to them. Brown explains that play is born out of curiosity and exploration, so even though they maintain a basic routine, babies rarely get bored. (We’ve all witnessed a wee one lying contentedly on a play mat, completely perplexed—if not enchanted—by her own feet.)
When you’re ready to incorporate toys into baby’s repertoire, there are a few important considerations to take into account. Make sure the toys can be safely put in the mouth, don’t include small parts and aren’t coated with hazardous paints or dyes. Instead, be on the lookout for contrasting patterns, which are sure to catch baby’s eye, and interesting shapes and textures for tots who are grabbing and mouthing everything within reach.
When building babe’s toy collection, practicality and longevity are key. Before you add the entire toy aisle to your cart, ask yourself the following questions …
- Where will I store it?
- Will it last beyond baby’s current age?
- Will this toy survive multiple children?
- Will it be used often enough to be worth the price?
In addition to store-bought entertainment, you can also make a game out of creating your own toys for baby. Even if you don’t consider yourself a crafter, you can whip up plenty of DIY projects that don’t require much skill. (No visits to a specialty craft store required—promise!)
Start by shopping your pantry. Dried beans, pastas and rice are ideal for noise- makers. Contain them in old spice jars for endless shake-rattle-and-rolling fun. Just make sure the lids are tightened securely, as stray pintos could quickly become a choking hazard.
You can also supplement your babe’s toy collection with repurposed, everyday household items—a plastic kitchen strainer doubles nicely as a fun bath toy, for example. If you can stand the clatter, measuring cups, bowls, pans and wooden spoons are a great way to keep kiddos occupied while you make dinner or clean up the kitchen.
Babies can’t tell the difference between something that is “real” and something that is a toy, explains Kris Fedenia, RN, co-facilitator of the Mother Baby Hour program at Meriter Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Given the choice, they always want what mom and dad have. As long as they don’t pose a threat to baby (sharing steak knives is a no-no), feel free to let your tot explore your gadgets and gizmos.
Switch it up
Prebaby, you may have had admirable intentions of limiting toys to the nursery. But the likely reality is that toys have found their way into every room in your house. (Insider tip: Store them in handsome baskets and boxes before guests mistake “primary” as your living room color scheme.)
One perk to this arrangement? Certain toys can be assigned to certain rooms. When the blocks stay in the kitchen and the dolls live in the office, it creates a certain novelty for each item, making a nursery-residing lovey, for example, feel newer for longer.
Karin Aldwin, a mom of one in Waunakee, Wisconsin, practices a similar method but with activity–specific toys. She keeps a few items, like plastic keys and a pretend cellphone, by the changing table and in her diaper bag, and they come out only during diaper changes. Her daughter looks forward to playing with them, and they keep the wriggling tot occupied and in one place during what is otherwise a less enjoyable event.
Another smart tactic to try: Keep baby’s playthings on constant rotation. Display only a portion of her books and trucks at any given time, and store the rest in a closet or drawer. By changing out the toys every few weeks, each switch-a-roo re-creates a sense of excitement and newness—just be careful not to let your sprout outgrow an item while it gathers dust in a hall closet.